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Dry Curing Virginia-Style Ham

Paul P. Graham, Extension Specialist, Food Science and Technology, Virginia Tech
N. G. Marriott, Extension Specialist, Food Science and Technology, Virginia Tech
R. F. Kelly, Retired Professor, Food Science and Technology, Virginia Tech

It is against the law to sell uninspected home-cured hams either commercially or privately.

Historical Background who want to cure and age a ham that will recapture
the delightful flavor so highly cherished by these early
Virginia ham was one of the first agricultural products clergymen, certain rules must be followed. This publi-
exported from North America. The Reverend Mr. Andrew cation provides basic steps that can be applied to home
Burnaby enthusiastically reported that Virginia pork was curing or commercial operations.
superior in flavor to any in the world (Burnaby 1775).
Another early clergyman, the Reverend Mr. John Clay-
ton, wrote the Royal Society in England that Virginia Start With a Good Ham
ham was as good as any in Westphalia (Force 1844).
A high-quality, cured ham requires that you start with
Today, after more than three centuries of progress, Vir- the proper type of high-quality fresh ham. Such fresh
ginia ham is still considered a superb product because hams come from young, healthy, fast-growing hogs
of its distinctive savory taste. For do-it-yourselfers with a desirable lean-to-fat ratio. Fresh hams can be

Figure 1. Parts of the ham.

Skin collar
Collar fat

Length of cushion

Rump (butt) end

Fore cushion

Rump (butt) face
Produced by Communications and Marketing, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences,
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2011
Virginia Cooperative Extension programs and employment are open to all, regardless of race, color, national origin, sex, religion,
age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or marital or family status. An equal opportunity/affirmative action employer.
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University,
and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech,
Blacksburg; Jewel E. Hairston, Interim Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State, Petersburg.
purchased from a retail store or a local meatpacker who A regular-cut ham style of cut is satisfactory for curing
is under constant inspection by the U.S. Department of and aging hams under conditions of controlled tem-
Agriculture or the Virginia State Meat Inspection Ser- perature and humidity. The shank is cut short, expos-
vice. This practice ensures that the meat product comes ing an open bone with marrow and lean tissue around
from a healthy hog. the bone. The butt is cut between the second and third
sacral vertebrae, which results in a larger lean-cut butt
Hams for curing should have a long, thick cushion, face than country-style hams.
a deep and wide butt face, minimal seam and exter-
nal fat, as seen on the collar (figure 1) and alongside
the butt face (figure 3a), and should weigh fewer than How to Identify a Quality, Fresh Ham
24 pounds. Heavier hams are normally fattier and are Figure 3a illustrates a high-quality ham has a firm,
more likely to spoil before the cure adjuncts penetrate bright-colored lean with at least a small amount of mar-
to prevent deterioration. Therefore, ones capability to bling (specks of fat in the lean) in the butt face.
control temperature and relative humidity determines
the type of ham to cure.

Types of Fresh Hams

A country-style ham has a long shank (solid bone) and
a butt cut at the sacral joint. This style of cutting leaves
less lean meat exposed in the shank and butt areas, Depth of
which reduces the possibility of spoilage. cushion

Fat alongside the butt face

Figure 3a. A high-quality ham.

Figure 3b shows the type of ham to avoid. Its muscles

are soft, usually pale in color, and lack marbling. They
also weep excessively and will shrink more during
Figure 2a. A country-style ham. curing. The open seams between the muscles allow
bacterial and insect invasion.

Figure 2b. A regular cut ham. Figure 3b. A low-quality ham.

Keep the Hams Properly Chilled be absorbed through these surfaces. Take care to pack
the exposed end of the shank with the curing mixture
Proper procedures prior to the purchase of a fresh ham to prevent bone sour or spoilage. Care should also be
such as chilling the carcass to below 40 F before it taken to make sure plenty of the mixture is applied to
is cut and maintaining this temperature until the time of the area around the aitchbone (pelvis).
purchase assure a sound product. Continued temper-
ature control of 36 to 40 F during curing is essential
for a good finished product. Shelves for Hams During the
Curing Process
Cure Application After the cure is applied, hams can be placed on wooden
The cure mix to use depends on personal preference. shelves or in wooden bins. Meat will readily absorb
Salt alone is acceptable. However, most people prefer flavors from the surroundings, so pine and similar fra-
the dry sugar cure. For each 100 pounds of fresh meat, grant wood should be avoided. Plastic can be used, but
use: it should be constructed so the water lost by the ham
can be drained away from the meat.
8 pounds salt
2 pounds sugar
Cure the Proper Length of Time
2 ounces saltpeter or sodium nitrite (available at
Virginia-style hams should be cured for seven days per
inch of cushion depth (see figure 3a), or one and a half
days per pound of ham. Keep accurate records when
placing hams in cure. Also, record the date to remove
hams from cure on the calendar, as shown.
Early December is the best time to start curing Virginia-
style hams under ambient conditions. During the cur-
ing period, keep hams at a temperature of 36 to 40 F.

Mix these ingredients thoroughly and divide into two December

equal parts. Apply the first half on day No. 1 and the Sun Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri Sat

second portion on day No. 7 of the curing period. 1 2 3 4 5

Rub the curing mixture into all lean surfaces (see fig- 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

ure 1) of the ham. Cover the skin and fat but little will 13 14 15 January
16 17 18 19

20 21 Sun 22Mon 23Tue 24Wed 25Thur 26 Fri Sat

1 2 3
27 28 29 30 31
4 5 6 7 8 9 10

11 12 13 14 15 16 17

18 19 20 21 22 23 24

25 26 27 28 29 30 31

After Curing, Soak and Wash house below 90 F. Hang hams in a smokehouse so that
they dont touch each other. Hams should be smoked
When the curing period has passed, place the hams in until they become chestnut brown in color, which may
a tub of clean, cold water for one hour. This will dis- take one to three days.
solve most of the surface curing mix and make the meat
receptive to smoke. After soaking, scrub the ham with a
stiff-bristle brush and allow it to dry. Nonsmoked Procedure
In Southwest Virginia, the process is to rub 100 pounds
of ham (after cure equalization) with the following
thoroughly mixed ingredients:

2 pounds black pepper

1 quart molasses

1 pound brown sugar

1 ounce saltpeter

1 ounce cayenne pepper

Bag the hams as shown in figures 5a-c.

Age for 45 to 180 Days

The aging period is the time when the characteristic fla-
vor is developed. It may be compared to the aging of
Figure 4. Use a stiff-bristle brush to scrub the ham after cheeses.
Age hams for 45 to 180 days at 75 to 95 F with a rela-
tive humidity of 55 to 65 percent. Use an exhaust fan
Cure Equalization controlled by a humidistat to limit mold growth and
After the cure is removed by washing, the cured prod- prevent excessive drying. Air circulation is needed
uct should be stored in a 50 to 60 F environment for particularly during the first seven to 10 days of aging
approximately 14 days to permit the cure adjuncts to to dry the ham surface. Approximately 8 to 12 percent
be distributed evenly throughout the ham. The product of the initial weight will be lost.
will shrink approximately 8 to 10 percent during cure
application and equalization. Cured meat is a good source of food for pests that infest
dry-cured meats. The insects attracted to cured meat are
the cheese skipper, larder beetle, and red-legged ham
Smoked Procedure beetle. Mites, which are not insects, also may infest
In southeastern Virginia, most hams are smoked to cured meats.
accelerate drying and to give added flavor. The Smith-
Cheese skipper: This insect gets its name from the
field ham is smoked for a long time at a low tempera-
jumping habit of the larvae, which bore through cheese
ture (lower than 90 F). Wood from hardwood species
and cured meats. Meat infested with this insect quickly
of trees (trees that shed their leaves in the fall) should
rots and becomes
be used to produce the smoke. Hickory is the most pop-
slimy. Adult flies are
ular, but apple, plum, peach, oak, maple, beech, ash, or
two-winged and are
cherry may be used. Do not use pine, cedar, spruce, and
one-third the size of
other needle-leaf trees for smoking meat, because they
houseflies. They lay
give off a resin that has a bitter taste and odor.
their eggs on meat
The fire should be a cool, smoldering type that pro- and cheese and mul-
duces dense smoke. Keep the temperature of the smoke- tiply rapidly.

Larder beetle: This insect is dark brown and has a ucts from the storeroom
yellowish band across its back. The adult is about 1/3- before spraying all sur-
inch long. Its larvae feed on or immediately beneath the faces on which houseflies
cured meat surface and other pests are likely
but do not rot the to crawl. Allow the spray
meat. The larvae to dry before any meat is
are fuzzy, brown- returned to the storeroom.
ish, and about Figure 5a.
1/3-inch long at If any product becomes
maturity. infested after precau-
tions have been taken,
Red-legged ham beetle: The larvae are purplish and it should be removed
about 1/3-inch long. They bore through meat and cause from the storeroom and
it to dry rot. Adults the infested area should
are about 1/4-inch be trimmed. The trim
long and a brilliant should be deep enough
greenish-blue color to remove larvae that Figure 5b.
with red legs and have penetrated along the
red at the bases of bone and through the fat.
their antennae. They The uninfested portion is
feed on the meats safe to eat, but should be
surface. prepared and consumed
promptly. The exposed
Mites: Mites are whit- lean of the trimmed areas Figure 5c.
ish and about 1/32- should be protected by
inch long at maturity. greasing it with salad oil
Parts of meat infested or melted fat to delay
with mites appear molding or drying.
Protect the hams by plac-
Insect illustrations were
modified from Home and ing a barrier between Figure 5d.
Garden Bulletin No. 109, U.S. Department of the meat and the insects.
Agriculture, Washington, D.C. Heavy brown grocery
Recommended prevention includes starting the cur- bags with no rips or tears
ing and aging during cold weather when these insects in them are ideal to use for
are inactive. Proper cleaning of the aging and storage this purpose. Hams may
areas is essential, because the cheese skipper feeds also be wrapped in plain
and breeds on grease and tiny scraps of meat lodged butcher paper (be sure not
in cracks. Cracks should be sealed with putty or plas- to use waxed butcher or
tic wood after cleaning. Screens should be installed to freezer paper). Figure 5e.
prevent insects from entering, especially flies, ants, and
As shown in figures
other insects that carry mites. Double-entry doors are
5a-f, wrap the ham in the
recommended to reduce infestation of insects.
paper. Then, place the
After cleaning and sealing cracks, a surface spray wrapped ham in a bag,
should be applied to the floor so that the thin layer of fold and tie as shown.
insecticide will kill crawling insects. Spray aging rooms The hams wrapped by
once every three months with a labeled product spray to this method can be hung
reduce infestation. in a dry, cool, protected
room to age. This room
Follow mixing and application directions on the pes- should be clean, tight, and
ticide label. If applied as a spray, remove all meat prod- well-ventilated.
Figure 5f.
Preparing the Ham
Virginia ham remains one of the favorite foods of Vir-
ginians and their guests. It can be prepared in a variety
of ways and served with endless combinations of foods
that complement ham.

The traditional four-step method is:

Wash ham with a stiff-bristled brush, removing as

much of the salt as possible.

Place the ham in a large container, cover with Figure 6a.

cold water, and allow it to stand 10 to 12 hours or
overnight. Step 1:
With the ham dressed-side up on a platter, make a cut
Lift the ham from the water and place it in a deep perpendicular to the bone, about 6 inches in from the end
kettle with the skin-side up and cover with fresh, of the hock.
cold water.

Cover the kettle and heat to a boil but reduce heat as

soon as the water boils. Simmer 20 to 25 minutes per
pound until done.

Another method of cooking is to soak and scrub the

ham and place it in a covered roaster, fat-side up. Then,
pour 2 inches of water into the roaster and place it in
a 325 F oven. Cook approximately 20 to 25 minutes
per pound. Baste frequently. Cook to an internal tem-
perature of 155 F, as indicated by a meat thermometer
placed in the thickest position of the ham cushion. If Figure 6b.
you do not have a meat thermometer, test for doneness
by moving the flat aitchbone (pelvis). It should move Step 2:
easily when the ham is done. Cut a wedge-shape piece from the ham so as to leave the
cut surface at a 45-degree angle.
Lift the ham from the kettle and remove skin. Sprin-
kle with brown sugar and/or breadcrumbs and brown
lightly in a 375 F oven or use one of the suggested

Orange glaze: Mix 1 cup brown sugar and the juice

and grated rind of one orange; spread over fat sur-
face. Bake until lightly browned in a 375 F oven.
Garnish with orange slices.

Mustard glaze: Mix 1/4 cup brown sugar, 2 teaspoons

prepared mustard, 2 tablespoons vinegar, and 1
tablespoon water. Spread over fat surface and bake Figure 6c.
as directed above.

Spice glaze: Use 1 cup brown sugar and 1 cup juice Step 3:
from spiced peaches or crab apples. Bake as directed Start slicing very thin slices at a 45-degree angle, bringing
above. Garnish with the whole pickled fruit. the knife to the bone. Eventually, the bone structure will
make it necessary for you to cut smaller slices at different
angles to the bone.
Cooking Ham Slices Line to cut along
Baking: Place thick slice in a covered casserole and
bake in 325 F oven. Brown sugar and cloves, fruit
juice, or mustard-seasoned milk may be placed on
the ham during baking. Uncover the last 15 to 20
minutes for browning.

Broiling: Score fat edges and lay on a broiler rack.

Place 4 inches from broiler and broil for specified
time, turning only once.

Frying: Trim the skin off the ham slices. Cut the outer
edge of fat in several places to prevent it from curl-
ing during cooking. Place a small amount of fat in
a moderately hot skillet. When it has melted, add
ham slices. Cook ham slowly, turning often. Allow
about 10 minutes total cooking time for thin slices.
Remove ham from pan and add a small amount of
water to raise the drippings for red eye gravy. To
decrease the salty taste, fry ham with a small amount
of water in the skillet.

The most delightful flavor of Virginia ham can be

enjoyed from thin slices. Thus, a very sharp knife,
preferably long and narrow, is needed. Then follow the
steps in figures 6a-c.

How To Bone Cooked Ham

The ham is easier to slice when the bones are removed
while the ham is warm.

Place skinned ham fat-side down on three or four strips

of firm, white cloth that is 3 inches wide and long
enough to reach around the ham and tie. Do not tie until
bone is removed.

Remove flat aitchbone (pelvis) by scalping around it.

Use a sharp knife, and, beginning at hock end, cut to

bone the length of the ham. Follow bones with point
of knife as you cut.

Loosen meat from bones. Remove bones.

Tie cloth strips together, pulling ham together as you


Chill in the refrigerator overnight. Slice very thin, or

have the ham sliced by machine.

thickens. Serve over waffles, hot biscuits, corn sticks,
Recipes for Cooked Ham or toast.
Slice Virginia ham for tasty sandwiches. Use your
choice of breads and extras, but be sure the ham flavor Disclaimer: Commercial products are named in this
comes through. publication for informational purposes only. Virginia
Cooperative Extension does not endorse these products
Serve ham biscuits for a special treat. Use thinly sliced and does not intend discrimination against other prod-
ham in a crusty biscuit large biscuits for family ucts that may also be suitable.
meals, dainty ones for a tea table.

Grind cooked ham to make a ham salad filling. Fla- Acknowledgements

vor with finely chopped celery, onion, and/or pickle;
Reviewed by Phil Blevins, Extension agent, Virginia
moisten with mayonnaise or salad dressing.
Cooperative Extension Washington County Office. The
Add scraps of cooked ham to scrambled eggs for added assistance of Mark Tolbert and Josh Pittman is grate-
flavor. Use the bone and meat adhering to it to flavor a fully acknowledged.
pot of beans or split pea soup.
Ham Loaf or Croquettes Burnaby, Andrew. 1775. Travels Through the Middle
2 eggs Settlements in North-America, in the Years 1759 and
1760: With Observations Upon the State of the Colo-
2-3 cups ground, cooked ham nies. London: T. Payne.

1 cup breadcrumbs (reserve cup) Force, Peter, comp. 1844. Letter From John Clayton
Rector of Crofton at Wakefield in Yorkshire to the
1 tablespoon grated or finely chopped onion Royal Society, May 12, 1688. In Tracts and Other
Papers Relating Principally to the Origin, Settlement,
1 cup milk and Progress of the Colonies in North America From
the Discovery of the Country to the Year 1776. Vol. III:
Beat eggs slightly. Add other ingredients, reserving
Virginia. Washington, D.C.: W. Q. Force.
cup of breadcrumbs. Pack into a baking pan and sprin-
kle with remaining bread crumbs. Bake in a 350 F
oven for 45 minutes.

Or, form into 6 croquettes, roll in cup breadcrumbs,

and brown in a small amount of hot oil.

Creamed Ham Deluxe

1 tablespoon ham fat, butter, or margarine

1 tablespoon chopped onion

2 cups ground, cooked ham

(meat from hock may be used)

4 tablespoons flour

2 cups milk

Place fat in heavy frying pan, add onion, and cook until
onion is tender but not brown. Add ham, stir, and heat.
Add flour, stir, and cook about 1 minute. Add milk,
cup at a time, stirring constantly. Cook until mixture